Learning From Last Season – NL LABR

We learn more from our failures than our victories, but in the fantasy sports industry (and probably in life!) we write more about our victories. It’s fun to pen the “How I won Expert League X” piece, and it’s good for marketing, too. Those pieces have merit on their own beyond a marketing standpoint too – but I do think that there’s a risk in assuming global truths from something that worked locally. For that matter, the converse is probably also true – we can conclude too much from a negative individual experience. Still, I’m going to go back and review each league and see what, if anything, we can learn. Are there any global lessons about how I play? How about how the run environment affected the results in my leagues? Or whether there was a certain type of player I was frequently right or wrong about?

After a three-year hiatus from the live LABR auctions in Phoenix, last spring I participated in the NL LABR auction over the first weekend in March. I liked but didn’t love the results, thinking at the time that I didn’t allocation my budget properly. I didn’t think that I spent enough on my hitting, both overall ($179 instead of my intended $190) and for my final roster spots, filling three outfield slots in the endgame plus my UT slot.

My misgivings were on target generally – this was a pretty mediocre team. I finished in fourth place, but I was never really in contention, and a full tier below the top three teams.

 

First, kudos to Howard Bender for holding the lead nearly all season and hanging on at the end. The Baseball Prospectus team was drafted by Mike Gianella and then run the rest of the season by Zach Steinhorn. They filled in with no notice after the tragic and sudden passing of our friend and colleague Steve Moyer in Phoenix.

Let’s look at my misgivings immediately after the draft. Were they on target?

Enough allocatedĀ towards hitting? I ended up with 43.5 hitting points, third in the league, averaging 8.7 points per hitting category. It’s a little less than I’d like – ideally I’d like to average around 9.5-10.0 points per hitting category. That’s a lofty goal, but when one is spending 65% or more on hitting, you need that sort of return if you’re going to have a chance to win. Would another $11 spent on hitting allowed me to hit my category goals? With the obvious caveat that if it were well spent, sure. It almost certainly wouldn’t have been sufficient to allow me to finish in a top-three spot in the league, let alone win it.

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Too many endgame players? I try to not get forced into the endgame, specifically dollar days, for more than one or two spots on my roster. I find that I’m more apt to find bargains in the $5-10 range instead of the $1-4 range. So it was a bit disturbing to end up with four hitters and four pitchers in that range on my active roster after the auction, including three of my five outfielders. Let’s look at those players, along with their auction price andĀ RotoWire Earned Auction Value:

Brandon Nimmo ($1/14) – Let’s go with the best one first. Nimmo was a big reason why I even came close to hitting my targets. He was especially helpful in Runs (77), though the nine stolen bases were a pretty nice upgrade over replacement value. Especially when my next player fell so far short there.

Keon Broxton ($4/-5) – Some of this purchase was predicated on the notion that the Brewers would trade from their outfield depth to get another starting pitcher, following their acquisitions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. Instead of a trade, Broxton remained with the Brewers all season, as did Domingo Santana, Ryan Braun and Eric Thames. His trade to the Mets came a half-season too late.

Franchy Cordero ($1/-2) – Speaking of crowded outfields, Cordero is mired in a similar situation in San Diego. It’s a shame, too – through early May this was looking pretty good. But then an elbow injury first altered his swing and then shut him down for the rest of the season on May 27.

Martin Prado ($3/-5) – In an “only” league, playing time in and of itself usually has currency, and getting that playing time was the motivation behind this buy. Multiple injuries thwarted that, and the return on Prado’s 197 AB’s were meager, netting just one HR and one SB.

Trevor Williams ($2/$16) – Ok, check that – Nimmo was the second-best of my endgame purchases. Who here believes in Trevor Williams? Williams was the pitcher analogue to Prado – had the job and thus had value, albeit in a pitcher-friendly park and decent team, with some signs that he might possibly succeed. But while the ratios were good, so much of his value was predicated on his 14 wins, and that is a bad bet to repeat. The poor strikeout rate (126K’s in 170.2 IP) will be enough to dissuade many from going after him in 2019.

Amir Garrett ($1/-7) – I was excited about this one. I thought that Garrett’s increased velocity would translate into a valuable roto season. His ratios were just ok, however (4.29 ERA, 1.29 WHIP), and he nabbed just one win and one save, despite seeing his K/9 jump from 8.02 to 10.14. There’s hope for his long-term value because of the strikeout rate, but he needs a more viable role.

Steve Cishek ($1, 6) – With four wins, four saves and excellent ratios, this one worked out pretty well.

A.J. Cole ($1, -7) – Cole’s tenure on my team was brief but damaging – I had him active for his four games with the Nats, where he posted a 13.06 ERA and 2.13 WHIP over 10.1 IP.

All in all, I spent $9 on hitting in the endgame, netting $2 in value. Certainly I made some of that up with replacements, but in an NL-only league that has six reserve spots and uses the DL, guess what? There’s not much out there in replacement value, especially early in the season. Many of my FA attempts were whiffs, too. So I’d conclude that my concerns about using the endgame to fill active batter spots was accurate.

The pitching side worked out better – $5 spent, with a net $9 return. That’s probably even a little better, because I cut Cole after his early Nationals harm. I had Garrett active nearly all season, however – LABR has a rule that you have to keep a player bought in the auction (or acquired via free agency) in your active lineup, so long as he’s active with his major league team. There’s no parking a guy like him on reserve – you either cut him entirely or keep him active.

So where else did I fall short? Let’s start with the pitching, as that’s where I came up short in the standings. Let’s start at the finish – closers. I spent a combined $25 on Archie Bradley and Hector Neris, netting $-3 in value and 14 saves. Yuck. In a partial (only partial!) defense, our auction was over the first weekend in March, one day before it was clear that there was a full-on closer competition in Arizona, let alone that Bradley was not the favorite. But as I said, this is only a partial defense. It was clear that manager Torey Lovullo hadn’t affirmatively named Bradley as the guy – I assumed facts that weren’t in the equation. Making matters worse, in an uncertain situation I didn’t acquire the alternatives in Brad Boxberger or Yosh Hirano. Boxberger even had previous closer experience. This error with Bradley wasn’t isolated to LABR – I also failed to handcuff him in an NFBC Draft Champions League.

So these errors were both structural and of a player selection variety. Let’s try to keep track of that as we go through my leagues in the next month.

My top three starting pitchers – Robbie Ray ($23/$3), Rich Hill ($17/$12) and Kenta Maeda ($11/$8) – all fell short of earning full value, failing to exceed 133 innings each. In an “only” league, replacement value is so low, that we often undervalue durability. Or, better phrased, we don’t discount enough for injury risk. Especially in the case of Hill, that was foreseeable to expect him to throw something fewer than a full set of innings. I was unlucky when the Dodgers moved Maeda to the bullpen, but I’ll claim Ray and Hill as mistakes.

Moving to the hitting side of the ledger, I’m happy with the results of my catcher strategy – in an “only” league it’s a pretty big advantage to get regular playing time and positive value out of your two catchers. I spent $13 on Yadier Molina, who earned $16, and $7 on Jorge Alfaro, who earned $4. Given the landmines that existed at the position, I’ll happily take that return.

Compare that to my corner infielders, who were supposed to be safer investments. I was skeptical that Eric Hosmer ($23/$16) would work out in San Diego, but I didn’t think he’d collapse as badly as he did last season. Ryan Zimmerman ($17/$6) worked out even worse, and Justin Turner ($23/$14) missed a lot of time due to injury. Hosmer was all performance-based, but again, I spent on two-more injury-prone players as part of my core.

My middle infielders worked out better – and they’re exactly the type of non-flashy players that you still need to get to do well in “only” formats. Cesar Hernandez ($13/$19) and Starlin Castro ($11/$14), and Freddy Galvis ($7/$4) didn’t kill me, throwing in eight stolen bases and plus decent other counting stats.

As alluded, one problem with this team was getting enough playing time in my OF slots – with three endgame players out of five slots. The two full-timers were Cody Bellinger ($29/$24), who fell short of my home run projection for him, and Tommy Pham ($27/$24), who managed to score 102 runs despite playing in only 137 games. I don’t feel too bad about the slight budget shortfall they provided – while turning a profit on each hitter is desirable, still earning the stats to be $20+ players is still very valuable. I’d invest in that sort of profile (young players, five category potential) again without hesitation.

Batting average was my weakest hitting category. Hosmer was supposed to address a lot of that and instead provided 600+ AB’s at .253, and I didn’t have a high-average hitter to counteract that. So player evaluation was a mistake here, as well as team structure to not account for Petco hurting his value.

We’ll see if BA is a category that comes up short in other leagues, or if I have any other consistent categorical leaks, when I start to go through my other leagues.